Natural comb: You want it, your bees want it too! What’s a good way to go about helping your bees to draw natural comb? Most beekeepers will almost automatically think of using a “top bar” hive or a Warre hive where instead of using frames with wax or plastic foundation as you do in a standard Langstroth hive, you only use a piece of wood that is usually cut with a wedge shape as a comb guide for the bees to completely draw out natural comb.
Well, I have great news for you beekeepers that want natural comb, but also want the convenience of using frames. It’s like having the best of both worlds, and I highly encourage new beekeepers to consider this method of management for your bees. If you think about it, there is almost a divided camp between the beekeepers that gravitate toward top bar hives versus the beekeepers that use the standard Langstroth hive because for many, the school of thought has always been that top bar hives are a more “natural” approach to beekeeping. The natural beekeepers avoid the plastic and wax foundation because of potential contaminants in the wax along with the off-gassing from the plastic foundation, and I find myself in the same camp. But I like using frames!
So, today I’m going to show you how you can use a Langstroth hive and be just as natural as any top bar hive beekeeper out there. Now before I continue, I want you to know that one of my very first hives was a top bar hive, and I still have one today. It was a little trickier getting a colony started, but it was a very robust hive once it was established, and it could produce honey like a champ. I was amazed at how much the honey weighed when I would lift one of the bars with comb. As much as I love my top bar hive, I found that there were some unique challenges to routine hive inspections.
For one thing, you have to hold the comb vertical at all times or else it will break off and fall on the ground setting the once tranquil hive into a frenzy not to mention sending the beekeeper into a panic. Secondly, sometimes the bees will fasten the comb to the side walls of a top bar hive. When you attempt to lift the bar, and it won’t budge because it’s securely welded with bee super glue on the sides, rest assured you are going to be there for a while. My only remedy for this was to ever so slowly slide my hive tool straight down the side carefully cutting through the comb that stuck to the sides. A routine hive inspection that might normally take between 3 – 5 minutes could easily take an hour or more depending on how many combs were stuck to the side walls. If you decide not to deal with this issue and hope it goes away, guess what? It will only become even more difficult the next time you try and get in the hive. I know beekeepers that started packages in top bar hives that cannot remove any of the bars and get in their hives because of this.
Granted, bees will weld the top down on any Langstroth hive given enough time but just keep in mind some of the maintenance issues that come up. I finally trained my bees to quit fastening the comb to the side walls, by repeatedly cutting very slowly through it each and every time I went in the hive. Eventually they took the hint and stopped.
But one day, I was wondering if the 2 types of hives, top bar vs Langstroth were really that different? After all, they are both made of wood. In fact when I started keeping bees, I started 3 packages of bees in 3 Langstroth hives, and one package in my top bar hive for a total of 4. I bought the lumber and used the same wood to make both styles of bee hives. So the wood was the same. I also used a foundation-less frame also called a “comb guide” that I found from Walter T. Kelly. You can order them at Kellybees.com I was determined to be as natural a beekeeper as I could be when I began, and I still am today. So not only were both hives made from the same wood, but both were set up to allow the bees to build their own comb. So they are essentially the same management style – natural comb.
One thing I noticed early on, was the ease of using frames. They are the hottest things since the discovery of electricity. I love being able to grab a frame of honey from a strong colony and usie it to boost a slightly weaker one. It literally takes a minute and you’re done! How about making a split? That’s also super fast and easy when you use frames too. So for me the frames are wonderful, but I do not care to use plastic and I am also aware of contamination in the wax foundation. So I use it sparingly like a tool encouraging my bees to draw their natural comb.
So if you are new to beekeeping and would like to have natural comb along with the ease using a standard Langstroth hive with frames, here are a few tips you can use to make your life easier in the process.
First never give your bees a hive with just comb guides. I did this once and they drew comb all over the place. Fortunately I caught it early enough and corrected it before they made it impossible to get in the hive.
Second,I then used some of my small cell wax foundation and took a pizza cutting wheel and cut it into 2 inch lengths and fastened them the same way I would a full sheet of foundation into the wedge top frames I had. These are called “starter strips”, and boy do they work great. It got my bees drawing comb straight and all the way down the frame.
Third, After your bees are drawing straight comb on your starter strips, it gets even easier to continue getting straight comb. You simply place a comb guide frame, or even a completely empty standard frame with the wedge turned sideways in between 2 fully drawn frames and they will draw it out nice and straight nearly every time. I learned this from Michael Bush.
Now you can simply continue using this method to greatly reduce or eliminate your need to buy wax foundation. So it saves you money and the bees will work just as fast without foundation – I know some might disagree, but try it for yourself. It’s the way bees would do it in the wild, and I try to encourage my bees to use as much of their natural instincts as possible when it comes to drawing comb.
So by giving this management technique a try you will (1) save money on wax foundation (2) encourage your bees to draw natural comb (3) avoid and reduce contact with any contaminated wax (4) produce your own clean organic wax for cosmetics or other beauty products (5) produce tasty natural comb honey and (6) enjoy the ease of using frames for quick hive inspections and splits or colony boosting. Plus you’ll still be a natural beekeeper even it you want to use a hive with frames!
Does this not make the comb weaker and prone to breakage during harvest? Seems like spinning the comb would break it without the wire ties in there.
If you’ve noticed, Aaron, Gene is talking about making *comb* honey, and indeed, this is a great trick. Those would make beautiful comb honey, unobstructed by the wire that standard foundation has. Folks who like to keep their honey absolutely natural and don’t care to *extract* honey or do creamed honey should love this.
Most people still prefer liquid honey though, so you may not want to go too deep into this technique if you want to maximize sales. You noticed that Gene mentioned that if you give them *only* starter strips, they will draw combs every which way. He avoids that pitfall by placing regular frames with foundation on each frame (and probably keep them as close together as possible, leaving the biggest gaps between the outside frames and the box walls. The frame with the starter strip is in between. They will eventually draw that strip. I suspect they will prefer to draw out the wax that is already there, though. The beauty of Gene’s technique is that you can still harvest for comb, liquid or creamed honey.
I’m not sure how he decided to have 2″ starter strips (rather than 1″). My friend even gets them to draw straight from a wedge of wood, without any starter strips at all. We live in Wisconsin, however, and even though her hive started very strong, she could not harvest any honey come fall: there just would not have been enough left over for them for our long winters. As I see it, this is the only advantage to giving them foundation: You get a jump on the short seasons we have here.
You need to decide what you want to produce. If you want liquid honey, or creamed honey, then you have to think “extractor”. If you think “extractor”, then it has to be a wired foundation. With what Gene is showing you, if you still wish to have some liquid and some creamed honey, you can. You just need to decide which frames will be dedicated to *comb* honey.
My suggestion is that you mark these “comb honey” very clearly at the beginning of the season. (At harvest time, you may not remember which is which and make a real mess in an extractor!)
The last photo shows a medium that was used for brood, so, Gene, do you build your brood frames that way as well, perhaps staggering to an all natural comb for brood over 2 years? Brood frames definitely do not need the wires of a standard foundation since they never get extracted, but to get them built straight… if you have to sandwich them between 2 frames with foundation… I suppose it will take time. Also, would you be able to regress the size of your bees with a fifty fifty system if that was your intent?
Thanks for the nice video. I like your setup, especially that I have some folks that have asked me for comb honey, which I did not have. I was thinking of selling them the whole frame, wood and all, for a good price. I’d make sure the frame is super clean. It should make for a nice presentation. But I think they might get sticker shock….
I am very interested in the comment about “Also, would you be able to regress the size of your bees with a fifty fifty system if that was your intent?”
This is my intent and I was wondering if I had to “help” the bees regress through different size foundations before I could go the foundationless route or if I could go 50-50 this year and then replace the remaining foundation frames the next year. Thoughts?
I was thinking the same thing as Aaron – these wouldn’t likely hold up for extraction – however I think there might be a way to solve that problem too.
Kelley sells plastic support rods to use in place of wire. I bet if you installed a couple of those in each frame and let the bees embed them in the comb, you could extract, no problem…
I’m a beginner beekeeper… my bees arrive on April 11… and i want to have my hives as natural as possible… so this is a great article! thank you!
You can still put wire on the frames – the bees will embed them into the wax.
Note that foundationless works great on swarms or new packages. Once the hive gets bigger, expect A LOT of drone cells.
I would not recommend this for a true beginner.
I leave in a part of the world that practice all natural beekeeping but Gene’s method could be a super hybrid.technology. I am going to start today.
This is true and works well. It’s nice to share with folks who may not know and I hope you have readers that benefit from the knowledge. But, it’s not like you invented this idea, and you pretty much present it as if you did.
Couple of questions about setting up your frames like this. Can you still use a honey extractor if you are not going to cut out the comb for comb honey? Do you put wire across the frame to provide some strength to the comb?
Thanks, I will be trying this on some of my hives.
Some people use foundation only in their honey supers so that they avaid the extraction problems associated with foundationless frames.
The weight of the honey will destroy the comb in an extractor. I use a large 20 extractor if I spin it up to high RPM it still destroys wired comb. Learned that one myself
Pls I really need ur help here, am seriously interested in bee business but I don’t know how to go about it. Like I don’t know how to get some of the mentioned materials in my area…pls help with a link where I can get a good direction to start…thanks
I’ve been doing this for a couple of years. I’ve also read that it may be healthier for the bees since they build cells the size they need–large for drones, etc, and, some think the drones can be used to control mites. In addition, I’ve read that the worker cells may actually be smaller and these smaller bees may be less susceptible to mites.
The mites seem to attack the drones more, then you pull the drone frames to remove a majority of mites
I tried to check out kellybees.com and it only brought up survey and advertising pages
But you cannot spin the comb with this method. It is a great one for combed honey squares. Using wired foundation I have saved my bees from having to recomb every year ( takes +-4 weeks to comb a full super in my area NW, The bees just clean/repair and get an extra month of gathering honey in our honey flow season here. My frames have been in excellent shape for 4 years, along with repositioning the hive bodies every spring and winter, the main bodies get used evenly every year. then every year I replace a couple of main hive frames and keep the brood in great shape along with their comb. They seem to do very well. Last year got 3 full supers per hive, 1 gets 4 full supers every year ( have 3 hives ). Well over the state of Oregon’s average haul of 1 super per hive. Been like this for 5 years now..
If a piece of foundation is placed as “starter” it will not be “natural comb” at least as far as the bees are concerned since the bees will use the imprint from the small sized cell foundation to draw their comb. The idea behind natural comb is that the bees make that specific cell size in synchrony with the environmental factors that prevail for that ecological area. Cell size changes as you go north(bigger)/south(smaller) and the idea is that we as beekeepers allow the bees to construct the cell size best suited for that environment in which the bees are kept and managed. Foundation used as starter for the bees to draw comb, unless from a known clean source, will contain some of the contaminants we are trying to avoid bringing into the colony.
If you are concerned about comb weakness when it comes to spin the frames at honey harvest, place the wires in the frame as you would for foundation, the bees WILL build comb around them embeding them in the process. This will only be a problem the first season. Combs older than a year will be sturdier.
Question. Instead of starter strips has anyone had experience with wooden paint stirrers for starter strips. Do the bees choose their own cell size this way? I have also heard of 4 foundationless combs sandwiched between 6 frames with.
Hello. I am a beginner beekeeper. I have not yet received my queen but expect to next month. I have been trying to figure out how to use a warre style system with a langstroth hive. I like that natural ideals behind the Warre system but wanted to use frames in order to be able to make it easier to remove comb for harvest or to move some comb to another weaker hive, etc. But, I didn’t want to use foundation in my frames. I’ve been wondering how the bees would build comb in a frame without some sort of direction. I think this is a great idea, using a starter strip. But I don’t understand how to install it is the frame. Can you explain that a little bit? Thank you
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